The furniture of D&D is high medieval Europe, but tonally, it is a Western. The PCs are not medieval Europeans who are buried beneath complex layers of rank and status and bound by chains of obligation. They are rugged individuals wrestling with the world one-on-one: they are pioneers, not peasants.
This is the case for two obvious reasons: the authors were American, and anyway it also just works better that way. There's a reason why Ars Magica or Harnmaster are less popular games (as good as they are on their own terms). And there is no particular problem here - in the end, the gap between default setting assumptions and the style of play hardly matter in practice, as generation upon generation of D&D players have proved.
Still, it remains the case that actually by default it probably makes more sense for the standard D&D setting to be more like the European Dark Ages* - a time of great upheaval, generalised collapse, and consequent freedom from social bonds not exactly like North America circa 1650-1850, but not exactly unlike it either. In Europe one had the retreat of the Roman Empire, the arrival of barbarian invaders from all directions, mass migration, and population decline. In North America one had the collapse of pre-Columbian civilisations, the arrival of barbarian invaders from all directions, mass migration, and population decline. There are of course huge differences between the two situations, but there is a similar mood music. Everything is in a state of flux, a new world waits to be born, and for a brief moment it feels as though almost anything is possible.
This makes the Beowulf period particularly fruitful as a template, as commenters on a recent entry here observed. Anglo-Saxon England (okay, Beowulf is technically set in Scandinavia) is almost the Dark Ages in microcosm - all of themes are there, from retreating Rome to barbarian invaders - and everything was gloriously kaleidoscopic and patchwork (see below for a map); this was a world in which a story like Beowulf, in which a brave adventurer just goes off and fights a monster to win fame and glory, makes perfect sense.
Shieldwalls & Sorcery, then, is a workable concept, not as a faithful representation of historical fact, but as a kind of Yoon-Suinization of that period. Here is what I am thinking, in bullet point form:
- When people think of Dark Ages England, they tend to instinctively take the sides of the Celts, who are the underdogs, and have the inherently appealing figure of King Arthur on their side. Shieldwalls & Sorcery, though, should have the Anglo-Saxons equivalents as the focus: they are the adventuring pioneers who have come to win fame and fortune in a strange foreign land; that's therefore who the PCs should be.
- This means that the native Celt-stand-ins should be stereotypically Celtic, dialled up to 11. They like sinister magic and hiding in misty forests and fens; they engage in weird sex cult rituals; they go in heavily for human sacrifice; they consort with elves and worship weird gods; they are unpredictable and fiery and given to fits of melancholia and strange flights of fancy; they are maudlin but good musicians. (All very much like a typical Saturday night in Glasgow.) They are antagonists.
- This is historically probably wrong, because the native Celtic Britons received Christianity before the Anglo-Saxons did, but in my not-actually-England-in-the-Dark-Ages setting it seems to make more aesthetic sense to imagine the Anglo-Saxons as the Christians, or pseudo-Christians, who have a sense that they are engaged in some sort of good vs evil struggle. This is important, because it allows me to bring in...
- ....the idea that not-actually-England-in-the-Dark-Ages is also populated by the Sons of Cain; different categories of monstrous enemy birthed by the murder of Abel and roaming the Earth ever since.
- There are therefore different intersecting imaginable campaign styles here - the PCs as pioneers exploring a brave new world and winning renown; the PCs as adventurers raiding the ruins of the not-actually-Roman-Empire that has now receded; the PCs as paladins smiting the Sons of Cain and heathen elf-loving Celts; the PCs as protectors of their people, newly arrived from beyond the sea; and so on.
- I want to reimagine D&D's classes accordingly. What would not-actually-Anglo-Saxon character classes be? Fighter, yes. Cleric, yes. But the uses of magic and druidry feel as though they should be the preserve of the Celts. Could a reconceptualised Bard be a replacement?
*We're told by historians that this is a misconception, blah blah, and that we are supposed to call it the Early Medieval Period or somesuch. Fuck off, historians.